Can Empathy Be Learned?

Cognitive based compassion training may be able to teach people empathy

(RxWiki News) Being able to read the expression in someone else’s face may not seem all that important, but research shows that it is a skill that can lead to empathy and positive helping behavior.

A recent study has found that a specific kind of meditation, Cognitive-Based Compassion Training, may improve a person’s ability to read other’s emotions.

"Practice compassion daily!"

Jennifer Mascaro, PhD, of Emory University led a team of researchers in a study of empathy and compassion in humans. The researchers were interested in whether compassion meditation would improve a person’s ability to read another’s facial expressions.

Why might this be important? Previous studies have shown that the ability to identify facial expressions and accurately link those expressions with their corresponding emotions is a characteristic of empathic people and is an integral part of successful relationship building.

Empathy and compassion have both long been studied for their link to positive, helpful behavior. Buddhist meditation is one example of a practice that is geared toward learning compassion and empathy, and it is from this practice that Cognitive-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, is derived.

CBCT is a secular, or non-religious, form of compassion and meditation training. The researchers set out to understand whether CBCT might improve a person’s empathic accuracy, or their ability to judge another person’s feelings through facial expressions.

For this study, 29 participants, aged 25 to 55, from the Atlanta area were recruited and screened for sound mental health. The participants were then randomly assigned to either the CBCT training group, or the control group.

Each participant was tested at the very beginning and again at the very end of the study, using two different measures. One was “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” or RMET. The other measure was the use of functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look at brain activity.

In between the two tests, the participants either attended 8 weeks of CBCT training, or attended a lecture series on health, which was considered the control group. The CBCT training involved one 2-hour session a week of various lecture and discussions, and also practice in-group and at-home of compassion meditation.

In the pre-test and post-test, each person had to look at black and white pictures of people’s eyes making a specific expression, this was the RMET. The test required that each participant choose one of four emotions they believed the eyes expressed. The fMRI scans were then also done.

RMET tests were scored on accuracy, and fMRI scans were noted for activity in certain regions of the brain.

The researchers found that everyone in the pre-test scored similarly on the RMET, but after the 8-week period, more of those in the CBCT group improved their scores than those in the control group. Eight out of the 13 participants in the CBCT meditation group improved their RMET scores by an average of 4.6 percent, while the control participants showed no increase, and in the majority of cases, a decrease in correct answers for the RMET.

The fMRI scans during the RMET tests showed that increased brain activity in certain areas occurred in those people that were more accurate in their RMET test. The areas that showed increased activity are parts of the brain housing our mirror neurons (neurons that help us connect to another person), as well as parts of the brain responsible for “mentalizing”, which is the ability to recognize our own emotional states and the emotional states of others.

Interestingly, previous studies have shown that these areas of the brain have less activity for autistic individuals, who commonly struggle with emotional connection and facial expression recognition.

The researchers admit that their study is small, with only 29 participants, but that the results could lead to future studies. This study reinforces the idea that compassion toward others and ourselves can have a positive impact on our ability to connect and relate to one another.

This study was published in September in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal and was funded by an Emory University Neuroscience Initiative Seed Grant Program, the National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, the Center for the Behavioral Neuroscience and an award through the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service. The authors report no conflicts of interest other than one author’s previous consulting work with Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pamlab.

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Review Date: 
October 17, 2012